The unique ability of the osteoclasts to resorb the calcified bone matrix is dependent on secretion of hydrochloric acid. This process is mediated by a vacuolar H+ ATPase (V-ATPase) and a chloride-proton antiporter. The structural subunit of the V-ATPase, a3, is highly specific for osteoclasts, and mutations in a3 lead to infantile malignant osteopetrosis, a phenomenon characterized by increased bone mass, an increased number of non-resorbing osteoclasts, and a complete lack of bone resorption. Importantly, these individuals have normal or even increased osteoblast numbers and bone formation suggesting that the osteoclasts, but not their resorptive capability, relay an anabolic signal, and, hence, that bone formation can be uncoupled from bone resorption when the a3 subunit is eliminated by mutations, or possibly by pharmacological intervention. The pharmacological profile of the a3 subunit as a highly specific target with a mode of action profile augmenting uncoupling and sustained bone formation, as derived from osteopetrotic patients and mice, highlights the relevance of the V-ATPase in future osteoporosis drug development. However, as illustrated by numerous attempts at developing specific inhibitors of the osteoclastic V-ATPase it is a very difficult target to work with, and an inhibitor possessing the desired profile remains elusive, although highly promising approaches recently have been launched.
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